The Eclectic Store

Photo by Kris Kathmann

Lora Rahe is barefoot, her blue jeans rolled an inch above her ankles. A trail of wet footprints follows her from the side door of her New Ulm business to the spot where she now stands, talking happily with one of her favorite customers.

For the better part of the past 16 years, Rahe has spent countless spring mornings out watering the plants that she sells at Rivervine, the retail business she and two friends started in 1987. Some prefer to wear clogs or rubber garden boots for the chore, but on this particular April morning Rahe jumped in with both feet bare.

The petite businesswoman has gotten more than a little dirty in the process of building this business. It began, after all, as an outlet for fresh produce grown at the farm owned by her friends and partners, Janice and Denny Guldan. Rahe spent many hours during the first years digging in the dirt with the Guldans, helping to sow, cultivate, and harvest the vegetables that would be sold through Rivervine.

Although the dirt under her fingertips comes from her own flower gardens these days, Rahe is still more than willing to do the necessary dirty work at Rivervine. And so, when the plants sitting in the spring sun seem thirsty, she slips off her sandals, rolls up her pants and grabs a hose. When the customers queue up in front of Rivervine’s two cash registers, she steps to the counter to help. When a customer has a garden question, she spends as much time as it takes to answer it.

But by the time 3 P.M. rolls around, Rahe puts her business on the backburner so she can pick her youngest son up from school and spend a few hours at home with him. “I try not to be full-time anymore,” she says. “I have a 12-year-old son who I want to spend time with. And that’s why I have employees, so I can have a life.”

For a long time, life was the business. Rahe’s two oldest children were just nine and six when she got together with the Guldan’s and hatched the plan for Rivervine. They grew up helping both on the farm and in the store.

Rahe and Janice were both working at the New Ulm Area Catholic Schools at the time, and both were looking for a change. Janice and Denny had been growing soybeans and corn on their 160-acre farm, but they wanted to find more profitable alternatives. Rahe had been working in the newspaper business but was burned out.

So when Roeder’s Hatchery in New Ulm went up for sale, they bought it and took over the business. That meant selling baby chicks, ducks, eggs, and feed—but it also gave them a ready-made storefront for the produce they planned to grow.

The first year, they planted strawberries. “It was a nightmare,” Rahe remembers. “We put in thousands of strawberry plants. And it was right in the middle of those terrible droughts. The weeds were horrible. But we survived. We sold what we had, which was not a whole lot. And we learned a lot.”

The next year they added sweet corn. And they planted fewer strawberries. Each subsequent year, they tried something else new; eventually, produce blossomed into the biggest component of the business and grew to include everything from asparagus to zucchini. They sold peas, beans, tomatoes, pumpkins squash and even kohlrabi, a member of the cabbage family that the Germans use to make kraut.

Kohlrabi is such a favorite among New Ulm’s German population that at least 10,000 of them get planted at the Guldan‘s farm each year. Rahe says that they even added a special key on the cash register to track kohlrabi sales at the store. “It‘s pretty incredible,” she says. “Kohlrabi is one of our major crops.”

With the help of the kohlrabi and all the other produce, Rivervine outgrew its original space within half a dozen years. So when a lot became available just adjacent to their first location, they purchased it and built a big new building for an expanded version of Rivervine.

“I’ll never forget how Denny thought this space was so big,” Rahe laughs now as she looks across the selling floor. “He said, ‘How will you ever fill all of that up?’”

It wasn’t hard. Rahe filled the space with garden accessories, kitchen gadgets, pet food, and Minnesota-produced food items. Bird feeders, seed and countless other aviary supplies occupied a large section. Rahe added perennials and other plants—a passion for the master gardener—and started selling seeds. She experimented with so many different things that the store became known as “a fun, unique store full of surprises.”

Not all of the experiments succeeded. “We have tried a few things that didn’t fit,” Rahe admits. Gifts not themed around the outdoors were a surprising disappointment. “Anything for the outdoors we can sell,” Rahe says. “But not for the indoors.”

Over the years, they’ve also tried stuffed animals, T-shirts and various paper products. Although some sold well enough, they were difficult for a small business to stock. “It’s hard to get small product lots,” Rahe says.

All the diversification has made marketing the business a bit of a mystery for Rahe. Her advertising budget includes direct mail campaigns, a few spot ads in the New Ulm Journal, and a Web site that went live last year: www.rivervine.net. But despite her best efforts, customers still come into the store and voice surprise over the breadth of offerings available.

“One of the most frustrating things to me is to have someone walk in who has never been here and say, ‘I didn’t know this was here’ or ‘I had no idea that you had all of this stuff,’” she says. “I’d like to know how to reach those people. That is the ultimate puzzle to me.”

Even the owners themselves have a hard time classifying the store. It’s part produce mart, part garden center, part gift shop. Their focus shifts with the seasons, of course, which adds to the difficulty in marketing the store. “Produce is obviously pretty seasonal—but I think every business in Minnesota is seasonal,” Rahe says. “I have to find something that people are just dying to find in February. That’s the hard part.”

But that’s also the fun part. Rahe loves the challenge of coming up with creative ways to keep customers coming through the doors. And in the past decade and a half, she’s become quite good at making ideas work for Rivervine.

“Lora is always open to new ideas and new products,” Janice Guldan says. “She’s a great engineer when it comes to knowing how to display things. It’s amazing how she can draw up a display on a piece of paper, show it to my husband, and he’ll be able to build it just from that. She knows her stuff and she’s quite good at it.”

But Rahe doesn’t do it alone—and is glad she hasn’t had to. Her husband Tim Rahe, who also owns his own company (M.R. Paving, also in New Ulm), has a financial background and has been helpful when it comes to bookkeeping. He’s also happy to send a forklift or other machine over from his business when Lora needs help unloading pallets. She has an assistant manager now, one of four part-time employers at the store. And of course, Janice and Denny do their part by providing the produce—and serving as constant support to Rahe.

“Our success is because we’ve all put in a lot of hard work,” Janice Guldan says. “The people within our business work together to set goals. And we all get along, which is a big deal. We’ve each found our own niche and tried to focus on that area, but we do all help each other.”

Of course, the daily grind of owning a retail business wears on a person, and Rahe isn’t afraid to admit that it’s starting to wear on her. A huge construction project is planned for Broadway Street next year—the second such project Rahe has been through—and she‘s struggling to come up with creative solutions to keep business thriving. “There comes a point with a business like this that you need to have fresh ideas and fresh energy,” she says. “I still have the ideas, but I don’t think I have the energy to implement them anymore.”

And after missing so many of the adolescent highlights of her first two children, she’s determined not to miss those same moments with her youngest. “I’ve been struggling with this for years,” she says. “During their adolescence, you should be the main influence for them. And you have to be around to do that. I want to spend time with my last child.”

So, last winter she contacted a Realtor to put Rivervine on the market. Although it was a difficult decision, Rahe has not regretted it. “I’ve run my course,” she admits. “This business has to change and grow, and it needs new blood to do that.”

Neither of her grown children are interested in inheriting the business (her son works in production at The Free Press in Mankato, and her daughter is teaching high school science in St. Paul). The Guldans support the decision and know that they could replace the produce sales with more farmer’s market appearances. “We don’t see it affecting us a whole lot,” Janice says. “We would miss the ready-made market in town, but we could fulfill that with more farmer’s markets.”

Now that the decision is made, Rahe is enjoying her days at the store even more. She hopes to sell the business as it is, so that she knows her regular customers will be taken care of. “We could have sold the building several times already,” she says, “but I don’t want to do that. We have a very regular clientele I want to take care of.”

And so, for now, she does. She answers questions, fulfills special requests and stops to talk in the middle of the store. And, when the occasion calls for it, she slips off her sandals, rolls up her jeans and heads out to water the plants.

Strawberry Fields Forever

Three acres of strawberries was too much to start with. They can see that now. But when Lora Rahe and her partners, Janice and Denny Guldan, put in their first crop of berries to sell at Rivervine, they put in three acres.

“Oh God,” Janice Guldan moans now at the memory. “It was pretty bad. I think we were able to keep about one acre of them. We had to till the rest of them under just to keep up with the weeds.”

Strawberries, it turns out, are a high maintenance crop. They need lots of water. They need frequent weeding. They can’t handle winter weather. And they’re susceptible to gray mold, a fungus that demands immediate attention. On a farm designed to produce vegetables of every sort, they can’t get that attention.

“Strawberries are the most frustrating crop,” Rahe says. “They’re good about every third year. … Dryness is bad for them, but we have a lot of other crops to water. We’ve had to make a decision to water the sweet corn rather than the strawberries.”

Now they devote only one acre of their farm to berries. And although they originally opened their fields for pick-your-own business, they’ve eliminated that element as well. “This is enough for me,” Guldan says. “This is plenty.”

How the Cookie Crumbles

Along one of the back walls of Rivervine, behind the sundials and suncatchers and next to the kitchen gadgetry, are the cookie cutters. Three-hundred of them.

The collection started with three: a strawberry, an apple and another random piece of fruit that Lora Rahe can no longer remember. They were part of a promotion from a Minnesota produce grower’s association and weren’t intended to become a big part of Rivervine’s business. But before long, the shining silver cutouts were claiming considerable real-estate within the store.

“People saw those and started asking for different things,” Rahe says. “And they just took on a life of their own from there.”

Now there are big ones, little ones and teeny tiny ones, in almost any style you could imagine. All the major holidays and life events are well represented. Sporting goods, animals, and farm equipment sit amongst candy canes, gingerbread men and angels. Rahe recently was asked to find a motorcycle.

“We have a special order list,” she says, producing a sheet of ruled notebook paper with scribbles halfway down it. “We’ll try to get whatever people want—within reason, of course. I have to order at least 12, so it can’t be something too far out.”

Fulfilling special requests is the fun part; cleaning the collection is less enjoyable. “Maintaining them is a bit of a chore,” Rahe admits. “They can get really dusty.”

to Market, to Market

Janice and Denny Guldan don’t have time for soybeans anymore. In fact, after just five years of growing produce for Rivervine, they realized they had more vegetables and berries than even that market could bear. So they ventured a few miles south to Mankato.

“We had a great year that fifth year and we had more than we could move,” Janice Guldan says. “So we checked out the Mankato Farmer’s Market. And we immediately thought it was great.”

This summer will be the Guldan’s tenth year at the Mankato Farmer’s Market, which is located in the Madison East Center parking lot on Saturday mornings and Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. They operate under the Rivervine banner and are one of the biggest vendors at the market.

Since starting there, the Guldans have taken their produce to several other farmer’s markets as well: St. James, Hutchinson, even New Ulm.

Wherever they go, it’s always a family affair. Their 17-year-old son Tim is a magnificent sales person, his mother reports. “He’s wonderful to have at the markets,” she says. “I think this year we might even send him to some alone.” Emily, who is 15 years old, prefers to work behind the scenes—which is just fine with her parents. “She’s my babysitter,” Janice, who also has a 3-year-old daughter, says. “But she has to help at the markets too—that’s never been a choice.”

The markets have been a marvelous outlet for their produce, but there’s a downside as well. “It’s really tough to get away in the summer months,” Janice admits. “When we all get home from a Saturday at market, getting the camper ready to go is just too exhausting.”

© 2003 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.


Sara Gilbert Frederick

A freelance writer from Mankato.

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